Theology

Typology and Allegory in the New Testament

It is a common trope among uneducated critics of Christianity, as well as historically amnesic Christians, that Scriptural allegorization is a modern phenomenon begun by “liberals” in light of scientific advancements. This is patently false as all students of biblical studies know. In fact, allegorical and typological readings of the Bible are from the very beginning of the New Testament.

I have an essay written on the typology in John’s prologue, written when I was a graduate student in religious studies at Yale, so I won’t rehash too much since you can read that in greater detail. In short summary, though, the author of the Gospel of John reaches back into the Book of Genesis to attempt to equate Jesus Christ with the God of creation in Genesis:

What is most obvious in the parallel between John and Genesis is that John recites the famous opening words of Genesis, “In the beginning…” (Gn. 1:1, Jn. 1:1). Likewise, the identification of the Logos (the Word) as the means of creation also parallels the Genesis narrative in which creation comes about from the proclamation of the word of God, “and God said let there be light, and there was light” (Gn. 1:3). At the same time not only is a bridge built between God’s speech of creation in Genesis with the Logos in the opening of John, that the first act of creation/speech is “let there be light” (Gn. 1:3) is equally paired, intentionally so, with the identification of the Logos as the “light of all mankind” (Jn. 1:4). The first act of creation is identified with light in Genesis and John subsequently identifies that light with the Logos (which is to say, Christ). Furthermore, since light is the first act of creation in both accounts, it is also the light that overtakes the darkness of the abyss by which light becomes the only revelation to creation which allows for the emergence of life (Gn. 1:2-4, Jn. 1:2-5).

The typological approach to Scripture is actually the invention of the New Testament authors, Paul, the Gospel writers, and the epistolary authors (especially Peter). Matthew’s famous opening harkening back to Isaiah is one such example (Mt. 1:23): “Behold, the virgin will conceive and give birth to a Son, and they shall name Him Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.” In 1 Corinthians, one of the undisputed authentic letters of Paul (written ca. 53 AD), Paul equates Adam and Christ as typological pairs: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22). We also see Paul, in his epistle to the Galatians (another of the undisputed letters written ca. 49-50 AD) explicitly take a new, allegorical, interpretation of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah: “Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the Law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and one by the free woman. But the son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise. This is speaking allegorically, for these women are two covenants” (Gal. 4:22-24). Paul also uses the term typos (τύπος)in his letter to the Romans when he writes that Adam was a type of Christ. The author of First Peter also typologizes Christ in baptism with Old Testament circumcision: “Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 3:21).

Some might say that Paul’s use of the term “allegory” is a modern invention of translators. After all, I’m citing from the NASB, a modern translation. But if you read the King James or Douay–Rheims, the translators rendered the Greek word allēgoroumena as “allegory.” And since Galatians is an undisputed letter of Paul, Paul used the word allegory himself in addressing the Galatians and explaining an Old Testament story and what it means for Christ-followers.

Of course, as students of historical theology know, it is from New Testament typology and allegory that the typological hermeneutic is developed by the patristic fathers and medieval scholastics. The notion of Scriptural allegory as a late development in the light of scientific advancement is peddled only by people who know nothing of biblical development and interpretation as well as interpretative (hermeneutical) history in Christian theology.

This, however, brings us to another point. Why did New Testament authors engage in this sort of interpretation?

The answer should be obvious in a First century, pre-(Paul) and post-(Gospel) Temple context.[1] The first “Christians” considered themselves Jews.[2] The “Christ-cult” in Judaism considered itself the faithful heirs of the Scriptural promises. These Christ-followers, however, as recounted in the New Testament Book of Acts, had difficulty persuading the majority of Jews that Jesus was the promised messiah. In order to try and convince these Jews of the messiahship of Jesus, the New Testament authors reached back into the “Old Testament” (the New Testament isn’t fully developed or canonized yet) to make the case through typology and allegory that Jesus was the promised messiah.

Because the first “missionary” efforts were to fellow Jews (Paul preached to the Jews first but shifted to the Gentiles after being run out and rejected by diaspora Jews), and the Jews were mostly hesitant of accepting Jesus as messiah, the New Testament authors employed—or established—the typological and allegorical interpretation of “Old Testament” stories as pointing to Jesus Christ. Even though these efforts largely failed, this interpretative method quickly became normative as Christianity developed as its own movement following the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD which magnified the split between the Christ-cult and Temple Judaism, eventually paving the way for “Gentile Christianity” and Rabbinic Judaism.

As it pertains to typology and allegory, it is an undisputed fact of history that this interpretative method was developed and employed by the earliest leaders and writers of what became Christianity. Those who say it is a creation of the 20th century, or even by “liberal” theologians in the nineteenth century, are woefully unlearned. Anyone who asserts that Biblical allegory (in its Christian hermeneutical context) is modern is simply an ignorant individual with no knowledge of what they’re talking about. The more fascinating debate is why the New Testament authors had to employ and develop typological and allegorical interpretations in the first place. While I have briefly described the basic reason, the fuller story and what its implications are is for another time.


[1] Paul wrote his undisputed letters before the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. The Gospel writers, with the exception of Mark, wrote their Gospels after the destruction of the Temple.

[2] The issue of Jewishness and Judaism in the First Century is important to also tease out. Modern Judaism is a byproduct of the Jewish Wars after the Romans sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. Biblical Judaism is centered around the Temple in Jerusalem as the dwelling place of God, organized through ritualistic practices of sacrifice by the priesthood. Modern Judaism, in its multiplicity of forms, does not have that. Modern Judaism as centered around Synagogue with Rabbinic teachers has its antecedent roots in the diaspora communities following the Exile, but isn’t fully developed until the 2-7th centuries AD. When it is said that First century Christ followers considered themselves Jewish, it is the context of Temple Judaism and not contemporary Judaism. The development of modern Christianity and modern Judaism are both byproducts of the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.

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Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.

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